The Mfengu or Fingo is a generic name for several distinct groupings of associated clans who fled from Zululand during the time of King Shaka (1818-1828) and settled in the Eastern Cape. It should be emphasised that members this group are to be found in the Transkei as well as the Ciskei: they cannot be characterised as distinctly Ciskeian peoples. After fleeing Zululand, many Mfengu found work in Hintsa's country but they were not regarded as equals of the Xhosa. Discontented they found a listening ear Rev. John Ayliff, the missionary at Butterworth. When the British army crossed the Kei in 1835, the Mfengu revolted and joined the British army, taking their employers cattle with them.
On the 14 May 1835*, the Mfengu gathered under an old milkwood tree in Peddie district, in the presence of the Rev. John Ayliff, and swore a great oath to obey the Queen, to accept Christianity, and to educate their children. This oath was to have momentous consequences. The Mfengu fought alongside the Colonial forces in all the Frontier Wars that followed, not as subordinates but as allies in the cause of Christian Civilisation, (source 4) and were rewarded by extensive tracts of Rharhabe land. The Mfengu became the first Bantu in South Africa to use ploughs, demonstrated to them by the missionaries, and also the first to plant wheat.
As the 'better-educated' and more European-oriented group, they naturally secured the bulk of elite positions as clerks, teachers, peasants, and petty traders that were available to Blacks in an elective system based on merit and achievement, as opposed to the pre-colonial Xhosa pattern of strong hereditary chiefs. They viewed themselves as the bearers of a great universal Christian Civilization, and tended to regard the Rharbabe and other Xhosa as backward and uncivilized (source 3). Several educational institutions, such as those at Lovedale, Healdtown and St Matthews followed these developments.
Every 14 May since the day the 'Fingo-Oath' was sworn has been celebrated as Fingo Emancipation Day, with a ceremony held under the old milkwood tree where the oath was sworn.
*Note: Source 1 gives the date of the Fingo Oath as being 1936. Sources 3 and 4 give the year as 1835. Source 2 gives the date as the 1838.
- Potgieter, D.J. et al. (eds)(1970). Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa, Cape Town: NASOU, v. 7, p. 382.
- Amathole initiative to preserve heritage and encourage tourism. Barbara Hollands. 01 October 2005. The weekend post online
- The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa. Chapter 14: Ethnicity and Pseudo-Ethnicity in the Ciskei. Scholarship additions website
- Hermann Giliomee and Bernard Mbenga. (2007). New History of South Africa. Tafelberg Publishers, Cape Town (pg 106).
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